Santa Monica officials sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday to gain control of the city's embattled airport, which local groups want to turn into a park.
Filed in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, the lawsuit seeks a formal declaration that the city holds clear title to the property, which contains the oldest operating airport in the county.
It also challenges the constitutionality of a 1948 agreement between the city and the federal government that requires the property and its 5,000-foot runway to remain an airport in perpetuity.
During World War II, the federal government took over the airport and improved its runway and taxiways for military purposes and aircraft production. It returned the property to the city with conditions to preserve its use.
"We need to get these legal questions answered," said Santa Monica Mayor Pam O'Connor, noting September's fatal crash of a private jet into an airport hangar. "The community expects us to protect their health, safety and welfare."
O'Connor added that the city needs to know whether it controls the airport so it can make decisions next year about its future use, including the possibility of a park.
City officials and airport opponents claim that the obligation to operate the airport ends in 2015 under various agreements with the federal government.
FAA officials declined to comment, saying they do not discuss pending litigation as a matter of policy.
The agency's long-held position is that the city must operate the airport through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal airport improvement grants.
The FAA also has asserted that Santa Monica is further obligated to run the airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the much-improved property cost free from the government after World War II under terms of the federal Surplus Property Act.
FAA officials have said in the past that they are fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping the airport open and operating.